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The Gilded Age and William Jennings Bryan – Modern parallels?

At the end of the 19th century, a young William Allen White—a critic of William Jennings Bryan’s populist Democrats—wrote a column titled “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” There he mocked the wealth-haters, saying the populist felt that “what we need is not more money, but less capital, fewer white shirts and brains… We need several thousand gibbering idiots to scream about” the power of financial titans, because “we don’t care to build up, we wish to tear down.”

Karl Rove, who sounds vaguely familiar.

There are all kinds of parallels between the “Gilded Age” of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Morgan, and the populist, anti-gold standard levelling views of Bryan, and what is going on today, with AOC, Robert Reich saying billionaires must have all done something evil, and the rest.

Bryan was famously opposed to the gold standard, as well as being an opponent of teaching Darwinian evolution to children and supported taxing land and was for prohibition of alcohol. It’s sometimes odd to find a political figure who is wrong on so many issues in one go, and so dangerously appealing to people seeking a person on a white horse who is going to drive the “money changers out of the temple”, as it were. Right now, with the rubbish coming out about why billionaires should be banned, and must have got their wealth immorally, it feels all very familiar.

Of course – and this is where these issues get complex – some of what is going on with the Big Tech entrepreneurs of today, and the Leftist grandstanding or PR they sometimes engage in, is creating renewed enthusiasm for government powers that came out of the late 19th Century in the era of Teddy Roosevelt. I note that Instapundit blog supremo and law professor wants the US government (I mean, what could possibly go wrong?) to use anti-trust powers to bust up the Facebooks and the rest, and in part this appears driven by political animus as much as any ideas of competition, although Glenn Reynolds’ arguments that there are problems certainly are strongly made.

Yes, it is true that it looks odd to say captains of business taking what appear to be annoying SJW stances, but part of me cannot help but think that these people aren’t sincere enough to willingly wreck their firms by so doing, by “going broke by going woke”. To some degree, they have entered a Faustian Pact of making nice SJW noises, getting close to various causes, in the hope that the Left’s crocodiles forget to eat them. If there’s a recession, as there will be eventually, expect this trend to change. Firms cannot afford to damn their customers (as in Gillette, for example) if business is on the skids.

And in contrast to the Bryan denunciation of the “cross of gold”, today’s Left and Trumpist Right rarely refers to the massive balance sheet expansion of the US Federal Reserve (quantitative easing), which juiced asset prices such as real estate and equities after 2008, disproportionately benefiting the already-wealthy. In fact, if anything, today’s Left is beholden to the print-until-you-drop approach, without a thought for the Zimbabwe/Venezuela/Weimar consequences. Take its recent enthusiasm for something called Modern Monetary Theory.

The recent row about Amazon and its planned new big offices in Queen’s, New York, suggests that a sort of high point to this strategy has been reached and that maybe the Silicon Valley Big Techs will realise that there is no point trying to make all nice to those who want to destroy them. Eventually, the malevolence of the looter Left shows itself. Even though some critics of these firms might be motivated by dislike of corporate welfare (NYC wanted to give Jeff Bezos a fucking helipad, when the multi-billionaire has his own private space programme), it is hard not to smell are far more pungent smell of anti-capitalism. They cannot be appeased.

Joel Kotkin has written an interesting study of some of these modern “Gilded Age” trends, such as the culture of modern Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Washington, vs the rest of the US. On a far smaller scale, there are echoes of this in the UK.

But Kotkin, as he shows in a thoughtful (mostly) item on all this, has his own rather William Jennings Bryan-like blind spots:

One can appreciate the economic benefits that firms like Uber, Lyft, Salesforce, and others have brought to San Francisco and other tech-oriented cities. Yet the concentration of high-end businesses has also helped create a neo-Dickensian reality: sky-high housing prices, widespread homelessness, and a rapidly shrinking middle class. There are now more drug addicts in San Francisco than high school students. Rising rents have undermined that city’s cherished bohemian culture and hastened a rapid decline in the minority population, both in the city and across the tech-dominated Bay Area. In 1970, 96,000 African-Americans lived in San Francisco; today, barely 46,000 make their homes there, constituting less than 5 percent of the city’s population. More than half of the Bay Area’s lower-income communities, notes a recent UC Berkeley study, are in danger of mass displacement. Amazon, it seemed to many progressives, threatened to bring the same conditions to New York.

This is zero-sum thinking on steroids. For a start, much of why the cities of San Francisco and others are so expensive is not because of demand but lack of supply (ie, planning laws); are Kotkin and others arguing that they would prefer for modern, disruptive businesses to not exist at all? A century-plus ago, the Sears catalogue business made its fortunes by blending the tech. of telegraph wires and railroads to bring supplies across the plains of the US. Sears today is in financial dire straits, as times change. But the Kotkins of this world would, presumably, have complained about how all the folk working for these businesses were driving up prices to “sky-high levels”. How dare they be so successful. As for the demise of the “cherished bohemian culture”, well, your mileage may vary as to how cherished that is.

Finally, I recently met Adrian Wooldridge, co-author with Alan Greenspan, former Fed chairman, of Capitalism in America. The book makes a number of claims (it is a good read) about American economics, and one of them is that the appetite for the “creative destruction” of capitalism is waning. Recent trends suggests that this is true. And that’s bad news for the world in general.

21 comments to The Gilded Age and William Jennings Bryan – Modern parallels?

  • staghounds

    More than half of the Bay Area’s lower-income communities, notes a recent UC Berkeley study, are in danger of mass displacement.

    What, they are going to be shipped to Manzanar in trains?

    More people who want to live in San Francisco are able and willing to pay more to live in San Francisco. What horror!

  • w

    “part of me cannot help but think that these people aren’t sincere enough to willingly wreck their firms by so doing, by “going broke by going woke”.

    You can’t be serious. The problem with high intelligence is the ability to construct narratives of delusion that convince you whatever you believe is right and with extreme success comes the belief you have the answers. Merely supporting the democratic party is a clear indication that they are more than willing to adopt policies that are antithetical to the survival of what made their wealth possible, capitalism. When Google fires an engineer for “violating their community standards” when all what he did is ask what can be done about hiring more women that is a clear indication Google is willing to jeopardize business in favor of ideology. The magnates of IT believe they will come out on top in any economic and political system and are more than happy to support the AOC’S and Kamala Harris’.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Oh I’m serious. Some of the SJW types running these firms may believe in this stuff, but in my anecdotal experience some also go in for the virtue signalling to deflect hostility, just as British toffs do self deprecation for the same reason. They also think that going “woke” is good for business although I think it’s going to kill them longer term.

  • Sam

    Very glad to see some pushback on Glenn Reynold’s nasty statism with regards to his ideological opponents. It’s so troubling because (1) Glenn is normally solid on the effects of state intervention, and (2) it’s so nakedly self-serving. As I’ve tried to point out in his comment section (never makes it past his censors), his calls for the state to punish “big tech” are often sandwiched between whoring his site to Amazon for the latest big sale on tactical flashlights or whatever.

  • Eric

    There are now more drug addicts in San Francisco than high school students.

    This is less an economic problem than a cultural problem.

  • Julie near Chicago

    That bothers me too — I keep wondering if Dr. Helen has given up being a psychologist in favor of a career in advertising for her husband — if Instapundit is an Amazon Associate, which I assume it is, it’s an income source. But at least Neoneocon tells us upfront that she’d be grateful for our getting stuff from Amazon via her site. And she only brings it up before the major holidays, like Christmas. Or when she’s having a yearly donor drive.

    . . .

    As displacing the underclass in San Fran, this is done regularly. You simply built Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini Green, and then gentrify the Urbanely Blighted community so the poor and homeless have to take themselves out of the area and into the Projects.

    Which is not, on the whole, a social improvement. “Calcutta on the Hudson,” or in this case on the Dan Ryan Expressway. On the other hand, as a resident of Hyde Park myself, I didn’t mind seeing the tenements go. Though it raised rents for us students too.

  • bobby b

    ” . . . today’s Left and Trumpist Right rarely refers to the massive balance sheet expansion of the US Federal Reserve (quantitative easing), which juiced asset prices such as real estate and equities after 2008, disproportionately benefiting the already-wealthy.”

    You’ve confused the Trumpist Right with the anti-Trumpist Right.

    And why would anyone who favors capitalism want to pursue antitrust remedies against Twitter et al. when it would be far easier – and more ideologically sound – to call instead for the removal of artificial government-granted protections of Twitter et al. that allow them to shelter under common-carrier umbrellas when they are clearly picking and choosing content? One can make fun of a supposed conservative free-market ideology seeking government intervention through antitrust, but what the “Trumpist Right” movement seeks is the removal of the cronyist government protection that empowers Twitter-bans.

    (I’m a bit confused by the conflation of Instapundit’s Amazon income stream with anything to do with his call to limit the social-media titans who are presently banning conservative expression. So far as I know, Amazon has nothing to do with that issue. If I had one of the top traffic-generating sites in the world, I’d seek out ways to monetize it too. But if I see one more ad for those damned “damaged screw extractors” . . . )

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well, Sam mentioned the ongoing Amazon hawking, and it’s been bothering me too … it’s just that it’s sort of like a formerly-great magazine becoming wall-to-wall ads. So I felt like saying my piece. Nothing to do with anti-trust, common-carrier, so forth.

    And of course Dr. Reynolds has the right to put up anything he wants on his site, if he still maintains control over it.

    I see that Insty now has Amazon as the first item in its clickable banner.


    Sigh. Don’t you people know I’m trying to finish drinking my suppper? (No no no, you’re taking me wrong I have to drink a box of Ensure every day, for the protein.) Anyhow, probably everybody else already knows this, but I didn’t, so if anybody cares:


    Dr. Reynolds founded Instapundit in 2001. Roger Simon, Charles Johnson (Little Green Footballs C.J., not the other one), and Dr. Reynolds (I assume he’s got a J.D.) got together and founded PJ Media in 2004 or 2005, per PJ Media respectively.

    The Great Foot also informs us that

    [PJ Media’s] majority owner is technology entrepreneur, billionaire,[1] and angel investor Aubrey Chernick.[2]

    The whole (short) article is kind of interesting (as is PJM’s About page), and some of its sources might be too.


    Also, Dr. Helen has quite a few pieces up at PJM. I’d swear she used to have her own weblog, but I can’t verify that with the whole five minutes I gave to the search.

  • bobby b

    Julie, I was mostly talking about this: ” . . . his calls for the state to punish “big tech” are often sandwiched between whoring his site to Amazon for the latest big sale on tactical flashlights or whatever . . . “, not what you said.

    I just didn’t see the linkage.

  • Julie near Chicago

    It is a commonplace that only The Government has the to smash the cartels and break up the monopolies that would otherwise ride roughshod over the people, their customers.

    I take most historians with a grain of salt and some with enough to preserve a buffalo carcass, but 20 years ago Prof. Burton Fulsom (retired Hillsdale prof) wrote a most interesting article on how, single-handedly, Herbert Dow, founder of Dow Chemical, handed the German bromine cartel its head on a platter. I hope Dr. Fulsom’s piece is accurate. Read all about it in “Herbert Dow, the Monopoly Breaker” at



    bobby, apparently Dr. Reynolds figures “enough is too much” where the “Tech Titans” are concerned. (And from what I read on some of Amazon’s former Associates’ websites, Amazon has gone crazy in its rule-making. eBay the same, PayPal the same.) Following Johnathan’s link to Reynolds’ USA Today Op-Ed, I see this:

    “A few monopolies occupy much of the tech world: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google — FANG, as they’re often abbreviated.”

    So the four are all together in this oligarchy of the Tech Titans whose power, I guess according to Tim Wu and Teddy Roosevelt, can only be overcome by The People, through our elected legislatures’ breaking up their various monopolies, because nobody else has the might to overcome their power.

    He writes,

    “They’re a political threat. Because they’re largely free of market constraints, they don’t have to put all their energy into making a better product for less money. Instead, they put a lot of their energy into political manipulation to protect their monopoly.”

  • Julie near Chicago

    bobby, now that it’s way past bedtime, I see your response to me just above my latest comment.

    I say this just so you won’t feel ignored. *grin*

    Anyway, it would be a perfectly good question: What has Amazon got to do with “social media”?

  • On the one hand, I would be careful how I phrased comment on amazon ads appearing on instapundit’s site even if I wished to criticise – which I am not so sure I do as some above. If the social justice mob choose pjmedia as the next target from which to try and frighten all advertisers, think about not make it too easy for them to misquote you out-of-context in their usual way.

    The common carrier point seems very fair to point out against GoogleFaceTwit. It is legitimate to note discrepancies in what the left are not banned for that the right are banned for, even if you also think that less banning of the right rather than more banning of the left would be the ideal answer. And if trust-busting exists and is praised by the left, one way to educate them is to let them feel what the receiving end looks like, and even more just to attempt to force them to discuss it, explain why they oppose it in this case.

    On the other hand, if the interesting analysis of Soros (that Julie recently linked to) is right – if he plans to strengthen Google by weakening Facebook and Twitter – then my own argument above means we should be careful if Google is omitted from anything done, and careful of letting anything be done that Soros plots to benefit from. That right-leaning analysis that Google shoved down to page 13 of the links you found on a subject is a subtler, safer (for them) shadow-ban than the open acts of Facebook or Twitter. If Soros is indeed thinking the same, then we must mind how we go.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Yes, it is true that it looks odd to say captains of business taking what appear to be annoying SJW stances

    There is the stance, and then there is the dance. Some captains are actually doing stuff, Bill Gates has a long list of actual real projects making actual real differences and achieving far more “social justice” than even AOC could wet dream about.

    This is not about anti-capitalism, it may be framed as such, but the anti-capitalists don’t actually want the money to dry up and they realize that billionaires are the only way to fund it, what they actually want is to spend the billionaires money for them, because, despite centuries of damning evidence, they still cling on to the idea that a cheap leftist moron can spend money better than a billionaire.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I quite like those ads but I’m weird that way.

  • Right now, with the rubbish coming out about why billionaires should be banned, and must have got their wealth immorally, it feels all very familiar.

    And by “right now”, you mean “for my entire life”, right?

  • CaptDMO

    Julie near Chicago
    February 23, 2019 at 8:40 am
    Anyway, it would be a perfectly good question: What has Amazon got to do with “social media”?
    Didn’t Amazon begin as a book store?
    Let’s have a look at the “reader review” section of ANYTHING even remotely controversial!
    (The Wikipedia formula)
    Let’s ALSO have a look at ALL the “electronic mining handshakes” made when hyperlinking to ANYTHING from IP/PM
    (Esp. the Discus “repository”)

  • Sam

    My point was that Reynolds is vociferous in his wish for a president he happens to support to punish Glenn’s ideological opponents via the murderous hand of the state, often citing a horrid prior president’s (very statist) actions as precedent. At first I thought he was being cheeky (like his ongoing “teach women not to rape” items), but obviously he’s stone serious.

    As Julie pointed out, his criticism is of “big tech”, and not merely social media. Even if he means only to use the state to punish Facebook so what? It’s unbecoming and hypocritical for someone tied to the hip to big tech. That he finally took the free market route with Twitter confirms for me it’s simple anger driving his calls for state intervention and the lack of foresight is disappointing. As said above, “what could go wrong?”

    I expect republicans to abandon private property and freedom of association, and inevitably when President Leftofmarx is running the show I imagine Glenn’s tune will change.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

  • Paul Marks

    J.P. Morgan had one Dollar of physical gold for every three Dollars he lent out – that sounds like Mr Morgan was a fraud (and by 100% hard money standards he was) – HOWEVER by the standards or modern banking, Mr Morgan was a saint. I detest a gold “standard” – the commodity should be the money (period), but a gold standard is a lot better than no connection with gold (or any other commodity) at all.

    More importantly – by THE STANDARDS OF HIS TIME, Mr Morgan and the bankers he led were conservative. Bankers in other lands did not have one ounce of physical gold for every three ounces of paper “gold” they lent out, they loaned out far MORE paper than three-to-one.

    As for William Jennings Bryan – he was no “hard money” man, as J.P. points out W.J.B. wanted LOWER interest rates and EASIER credit.

    Indeed it is William Jennings Bryan (not Mr Morgan) who was like Alan Greenspan – for under his free market TALK, Alan Greenspan’s ACTIONS have always been about easy credit and lower interest rates. Alan Greenspan is a master of talking right and acting left. Very much part of the problem – not the solution.

    But then when has “tight money” and “high interest rates” ever been popular?

    Mr Morgan hid from public view not just because of his physical ugliness (the disease that disfigured his face and expanded and discoloured his nose), but, indeed far more, because he knew that the truth would NOT be popular.

    People do not want to be told that money should be “tight” and interest rates “high” – they want cheap credit at low rates of interests. And they want no “foreclosures” if they do not repay their debts.

    I suspect that a free unicorn for everyone, and the power to radiate rainbows from one’s fingers would be popular as well – expect Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris to promise these things during the election campaign.

    As for the other “Robber Barons” – people who think (for example) that J.D. Rockefeller harmed the interests of the “little guy” are (at best) horribly ignorant. Support for “anti trust laws” is a key marker that shows a FAKE free market position (such as the Economist magazine) from a real one.

    In reality “Standard Oil” did great GOOD in the world – and “Teddy” Roosevelt (the enemy of both Mr Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie) was an ignorant man, under the influence of Richard Ely (the collectivist who helped ruin American universities – and corrupt the “mainline” churches).

  • Paul Marks

    Even by the horribly standards of modern statist America, California in general and San Francisco in general are statist indeed – only a handful of places (such as New York City or the State of New Jersey) are worse.

    So blaming the problems of San Francisco on “capitalism” is bizarre.

    As for high property prices – well the collapse of the Credit Bubble financial system will “solve” that, in a very brutal way.

    No doubt President Trump will be blamed (if the collapse of the Credit Bubble economy happens under him) – but the Credit Bubble economy was the creation of the Federal Reserve (Alan Greenspan and co). NOT Donald Trump.